Interview

How to choose a City law firm that won’t end your career when you have kids

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Ex-magic circle solicitor warns female legal wannabes not to follow the money — or even the most recent women partner promotion stats

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London’s coterie of global law firms has been proudly trumpeting over the last few weeks increased numbers of women partnership promotions — but one former City solicitor turned careers coach says many of the large practices are just talk.

Caroline Flanagan (pictured below) has lived the experience of trying to have a young family while retaining a career as a top-flight transactional lawyer — and it wasn’t a happy story.

Flanagan, who read history at Cambridge before doing the law conversion and Legal Practice Course at the then College of Law, trained at the London headquarters of magic circle player Allen & Overy and stayed on at the firm for three years after qualifying.

By the time Flanagan became unexpectedly pregnant 12 years ago, she had moved to a dream job in the finance department at the London office of Wall Street-based global giant Cleary Gottlieb.

Caroline

All went well through her six-month maternity leave. But on return to work, Flanagan agreed a part-time deal that was meant to provide her with the ability to combine career and family.

However, in the world of global law firms — or at least in the minds of the Cleary partners a dozen years ago — part time had an interesting definition. Flanagan’s deal involved working 9 to 5, five days a week, with evening availability required when necessary.

To most working stiffs that sounds like a full-time job with a spot of unpaid overtime thrown in for good measure. And for the privilege of agreeing the Cleary deal, Flanagan accepted a 20% pay cut.

“My advice to women, now,” says the 42-year-old, who went on to found Caroline Flanagan Coaching, “is be very careful of what you agree.”

“Continuing as a transactional lawyer is always a challenge with a flexible working arrangement. The view of law firm partnerships is that you cannot be on a transaction and work on the file only during fixed hours. The clients won’t stand for it.

“My arrangement started to unravel — 5pm became later and later, and I found myself doing much more and then asking for time in lieu, which didn’t go down very well.”

Ultimately, Flanagan left legal practice in 2005 with the niggling feeling that the firm at the time didn’t try hard enough to keep her.

“I left on good terms with my boss,” she says. “And I don’t want this to sound like a betrayal of the feminist movement, but I felt like I should have known better and should have been better prepared.”

Has the situation improved in the intervening decade? About a week ago, the Law Gazette reported that women accounted for nearly a third of the latest round of magic circle partnership promotions. That figure was slightly higher than last year’s — so, granddaughters of the suffragettes, crack open the bubbly.

Well, not quite, cautions Flanagan, whose coaching business is now routinely instructed by City firms to advise on how to retain female talent.

“The top law firms are investing in their leadership-track women — and it is expensive and time-consuming to do so,” she says. “But they are still seeing massive attrition at the lower level of between two and five years qualified, with the attrition rate significantly higher for women than it is for men. And that is happening despite some firms having their most recent intakes dominated by 60% women.”

Is the problem that many large law firms simply speak with forked tongues when it comes to work-life balance issues? Are they as sincere as Weil Gotshal, with its recent April Fool’s message that effectively held the concept up to ridicule?

“It depends on the law firm,” says Flangan diplomatically. “I’ve been very disillusioned by a couple that I had expected more from. They don’t seem to be willing to have open and honest conversations with their women lawyers.

“At the other extreme is a law firm that has panel discussions where it actively encourages people to be as open as possible and seems to want to change.”

According Flanagan, who now has four sons, the message to women is they don’t have to jack in their legal careers when they start families.

“If they are in a law firm that doesn’t care, they need to look around and move to a law firm that does care.”

Far more easily said, many at today’s women at sharp end of City legal practice will scream. But Flanagan — who is publishing a book later this year that is provisionally titled “From here to maternity: how to baby-proof your career before they come along” — is adamant that women lawyers have choices.

“They have to be smart about who they choose to work for,” she argues. “Don’t make a decision based only on which firms pay the most. Indeed, don’t make a decision based only on which firms are making up the most women partners.

“Make a decision based on having talked to as many people as possible so you can understand the real experience of working at various law firms. Not all legal careers are the same, so chose carefully.”

Caroline Flanagan can be found on Twitter at @Babyproof_Coach.